Plastic recycling rates continue to decline, at the same time as production is increasing, according to a Greenpeace USA report released this week. The environmental watchdog blasts as "fiction" industry claims that we have created an efficient, circular economy.
The study "Circular Claims Fall Flat Again" found that of 51 million tons of plastic waste generated by US households in 2021, only 2.4 million tons were recycled, less than five percent.
After peaking in 2014 at 10 percent, recycling has been decreasing, especially since China stopped accepting plastic waste for reprocessing in 2018.
Production of non-recycled plastic is rapidly rising as the petrochemical industry expands, lowering costs.
"Industry groups and big corporations have been pushing for recycling as a solution," Greenpeace USA campaigner Lisa Ramsden told French news agency AFP.
"By doing that, they have shirked all responsibility" for ensuring that recycling actually works, she added. She named Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Unilever and Nestle as prime offenders.
According to Greenpeace USA's survey, only two types of plastic are widely accepted at the nation's 375 material recovery facilities.
The first is polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is commonly used in water and soda bottles; and the second is high density polyethylene (HDPE), seen in milk jugs, shampoo bottles and cleaning product containers.
These are numbered "1" and "2" according to the standardised system listing seven different types of plastic.
Recyclable but not recycled!
Being recyclable in theory doesn't mean products are being recycled in practice.
The report found that PET and HDPE products had actual reprocessing rates of 21 percent and 10 percent, respectively - both down slightly from Greenpeace USA's last survey in 2020.
Plastic types "3" through "7" - including children's toys, plastic bags, produce wrappings, yogurt and margarine tubs, coffee cups and to-go food containers - are being reprocessed at rates of less than five percent.
Despite often carrying the recycling symbol on their labels, products that use plastic types "3" through "7" fail to meet the Federal Trade Commission classification of recyclable.
This is because recycling facilities for these types aren't available to a "substantial majority" of the population, defined as 60 percent, and because the collected products are not being used in the manufacturing or assembly of new items.
According to the report, there were five main reasons why plastic recycling is a "failed concept."
First, plastic waste is generated in vast quantities and is extremely difficult to collect .
Second, it is "impossible to sort the trillions of pieces of consumer plastic waste produced each year," the report said. And the different varieties of plastic need to be treated differently.
Third, the recycling process itself is environmentally harmful, exposing workers to toxic chemicals and itself generating microplastics.
Fourth, recycled plastic carries toxicity risks through contamination with other plastic types in collection bins, preventing it from becoming food-grade material again.
Fifth and finally, the process of recycling is expensive.
"New plastic directly competes with recycled plastic, and it's far cheaper to produce and of higher quality," says the report.
Ramsden called on corporations to support a Global Plastics Treaty, which United Nations members agreed to create in February, and move toward refill and reuse strategies.
"This isn't actually a new concept - it's how the milkman used to be, it's how Coca-Cola used to get its beverages to people. They would drink their beverage, give the glass bottle back, and it would be sanitised and reused," she said.